Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a really fateful trip. It starts from that psychotropic port, Hollywood.
Seems "Robinson Crusoe" and "Lord of the Flies" are not nearly enough in this day of gritty "reality" television. Now the concept of human survival against the odds and the elements--the stuff of literature and "Gilligan's Island"--is going to get real. In prime time, with prize money.
CBS announced this week that it will air "Survivor," a one-hour "reality-adventure" series next summer. The concept: Sixteen "real" people, selected from a nationwide search, will be sent to a deserted island, where they must live for 39 days with limited resources. In quasi-Darwinian fashion, the participants will vote every three days to eliminate one castaway. The last seven "losers" will then choose between the remaining two. The winner gets $1 million for his or her troubles.
Or as CBS's breathless publicity describes it, "The participants--left to their own devices to find food, water, and shelter--must build a world for themselves. . . . 'Survivor' will test competitors' physical and psychological strength, endurance and wits during competitions in the jungles, hills, mountains and waters" on an island off the coast of Borneo.
Sort of like MTV's "The Real World," only with greater potential for cannibalism.
In truth, producer Mark Burnett says no one will get eaten, and everyone will eat, on "Survivor."
"If someone breaks their leg, of course we'll take care of that," he says. "We won't just say 'tough luck, get gangrene.' " He adds, "Only a moron would starve on this island. There's coconuts and fruit everywhere. There are so many fish, you could catch one without even baiting your hook."
Hewing to Fred Allen's dictum that "imitation is the sincerest form of television," "Survivor" is actually a knockoff of several shows.
Indeed, Burnett, 39, purchased the idea from the producers of a wildly successful Swedish program called "Expedition Robinson," which places randomly selected participants in exotic locales. A Dutch show called "Big Brother" follows a group of strangers who must coexist in a house.
"Survivor" also contains elements of "Eco Challenge," a Discovery Channel series produced by Burnett and partner Charlie Parsons that pits contestants in mountain climbing and white-water rafting events.
More broadly, "Survivor" combines two formats that are becoming staples of prime-time network TV: the "reality" series and the game show. Both kinds of shows have proved to be healthy audience draws for the networks, with the added bonus that they're relatively inexpensive to produce.
This summer, for example, ABC scored a huge prime-time hit with the quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" The success of that show prompted CBS and NBC to dust off old game formats, such as "Twenty-One" and "What's My Line?" for airing later this season.
Reality programs--which typically use dramatic bits of amateur video strung together by a grave narrator--have likewise proliferated across the dial over the past three years. During the November "sweeps," for example, ABC will air "World's Deadliest Earthquakes," from producer Bruce Nash, considered the father of the genre.
Nash's next project, for the UPN network, is "I Dare You," a series in which stuntmen and otherwise sane ordinary people will perform death-defying stunts. "This is an opportunity to create exciting TV out of whole cloth," says Nash.
On "Survivor," 10 camera crews will record the participants' every move. But don't expect cinema verite; the "Swiss Family Robinson"-esque reality will get a little re-touching.
Although they won't be allowed to bring tents, sleeping bags or other equipment to the island, participants will be supplied with enough rice and grain to see them through lean times, producer Burnett says.
And CBS says medical and psychological staff will be stationed on the island, just in case. In fact, once the show gets rolling, the "deserted island" won't be very; the producers plan to build a fully stocked compound for the camera crews.
Once there, the participants will engage in staged "challenges," such as fishing and blow-dart contests. Winners of these telegenic events will receive small rewards, such as a candy bar or a letter from home. Some winners will be granted "immunity," meaning they can't be voted off the show during the next round of balloting.
"There's going to be high adventure, but I'm mainly interested in the psychological aspects" of the situation, says Burnett. "The winner must be someone who'll contribute to the well-being of the island society but must also be likable to the other people. You might be the best fisherman but if you're [a jerk] you'll get kicked off. On the other hand, if you're likable but useless, you're out."
Which means the Professor stays and the Howells are out.